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Problem Child Webcomic ‘Max Overacts’ Turns Acting Out into an Art Form

Amateur problem child techniques are beneath Max Fogherty, star of Caanan Grall’s Eisner-nominated webcomic Max Overacts. After all, why pass notes to your crush when you can get up in front of the class and recite an ode to her charms? Why flick your sister’s ear when your ventriloquist’s dummy can accuse her of sexual harassment? Why blow off your homework when you can invent a revisionist geometry based on bears building the pyramids? As far as Max is concerned, it’s not acting out; it’s honing his craft.

Grall, who also created the body-swapping monster hunter webcomic Celadore for DC’s now-defunct Zuda imprint, originally launched Max Overacts as a gag-a-day strip. Max Fogherty is a highly imaginative grade-schooler with energy to spare and a need to be the constant center of attention. Max doesn’t have an off-switch, and every moment is an occasion to perform.

Shocked by the price of mints at the supermarket, he performs a monologue as a crotchety old man who remembers when mints were a mere five cents. Family game nights dissolve into lengthy accounts of Colonel Mustard’s wartime service. Even when he’s alone working on his homework, Max engages in absurd conversations with his ventriloquist dummy Curio or his hand puppet bear.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace are clearly in Max Overacts‘s DNA. There is even a Mr. Wilson to Max’s Dennis in the form of Sir Allen, the Alec Guinness-inspired neighbor and one-time star of a classic science fiction show. But Grall makes Max his own with his sharp dialogue (Max is incredibly articulate for someone in danger of repeating the third grade) and dreams of stardom.

And, refreshingly, the adults in Max’s life all have his number. His parents and teachers are sometimes exasperated by Max’s antics, but no one wants to discourage down his relentless creativity and optimism — and sometimes they even manage to harness Max’s powers for good. Similarly, the children who surround Max, from his goth sister Andi to his classmates, all hold their own, criticizing Max’s performances instead of merely rolling their eyes, or outwitting him to get a little peace and quiet. Max may win most of the time, but it’s fun to watch someone else score a point off him now and again.

More recently, Max Overacts has moved beyond its gag-a-day structure to develop story arcs around Max’s romantic life and school performance. It’s there that we get to the tragic flaw of the problem child protagonist. Max is engaging and talented, but he’s also pathologically self-involved, which causes him to make many emotional missteps with Janet, his first (but not only) crush.

All those made-up homework assignments are not without consequence. After a parent-teacher conference where his teacher threatens to hold him back, it seems that Max must truly mend his academic ways. Grall seems determined to show us not only the joys of being the class clown, but what happens when the class clown starts to grow up.

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